78: Developing the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs with Diane Rucker of University Enterprise LaboratoriesPublished May 18, 2021
Run time: 01:01:01
If you have a passion for change, you should consider yourself an entrepreneur. Diane Rucker, Executive Director of University Enterprise Laboratories, has extensive experience in technology and innovation, and she joins the show to chat about redefining entrepreneurship, the soft skills needed to be a well-rounded developer, the criticality of business partners who look at things differently than you, and the state of startups in Minnesota compared to the coasts.
In this episode, you will learn:
- The purpose of intellectual property protections for startups
- Why developers should learn soft skills and how to balance them with learning hard skills
- Why entrepreneurship should be redefined as having a passion for change
- How it’s really hard to start a business by yourself and why sounding points are critical
- Diane’s thoughts on the state of the Minnesota startup ecosystem today and how corporations can help or hinder the ecosystem
- Common mistakes of building digital products and startups
This episode is brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group, where we make sense of mobile app development with our non-technical approach to building custom mobile software solutions. Learn more at https://jmg.mn.
Recorded April 27, 2021 | Edited by Jordan Daoust | Produced by Jenny Karkowski
University Enterprise Laboratories website
Outliers by Malcom Gladwell
JMG Careers Page
Tim Bornholdt 0:00
Welcome to Constant Variables, a podcast where we take a non-technical look at what it takes to build and grow digital products. I'm Tim Bornholdt. Let's get nerdy.
A quick note before we jump into this week's episode, we at The Jed Mahonis Group have a lot of fun projects coming in the door. And as a result, we're looking to expand our team by bringing on another Android developer. We place an emphasis here on hiring for fit as opposed to skills. Skills can be absolutely taught and fostered through mentorship and experience, where fit on the other hand is a lot harder to define. We've tried to outline some of the traits we're looking for on our careers page over at jmg.mn/careers. So whether you have a year of experience or 20 years of experience, if you're interested in talking with us, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will put that email address and a link to the careers page in our show notes as well.
Today, we are chatting with Diane Rucker, Executive Director of University Enterprise Laboratories, a business incubator for early stage ventures in biotechnology, medical, health and life sciences. Diane has extensive experience in technology and innovation, and she joins the show to chat about startups, the soft skills needed to be a well rounded developer, how we can improve university educations, the state of startups here in Minnesota and so, so much more. This was an absolute treat of an interview. So without further ado, here is my interview with Diane Rucker.
Diane, welcome to the show.
Diane Rucker 1:51
Thanks so much, Tim. It's great to be here with you today.
Tim Bornholdt 1:53
I'm really excited to have you, and we just spent, like 15 minutes talking running. So I feel like we're fast friends already. Well, I don't know how fast. We didn't talk about speeds. But we're at least already quick friends in that regard.
Diane Rucker 2:07
Running is kind of a great equalizer.
Tim Bornholdt 2:09
It really is. And I know you said you've been getting a lot of your mileage in with walking these days. But do you take a lot of your calls or meetings or anything while out on a walk?
Diane Rucker 2:21
I try to. In fact I would say the walk is really what's made the pandemic bearable. So I've been putting on about five to seven miles a day of walking. I try to do take calls or meetings when possible outdoors just because I need that time and I invested in a really good parka this year. So I kept it going through December, January and February. But I love being outdoors.
Tim Bornholdt 2:47
Absolutely a good parka and a really good pair of headphones with some noise cancellation. That's the key.
Diane Rucker 2:54
Yeah, I learned that one last year actually when I had a terrible set of headphones and tried to take a call and ended up passing a group that was doing chainsaw trimming of trees. Let's say that call didn't go too well.
Tim Bornholdt 3:08
That's when you picked up running again, so you could sprint past that part of it to be able to hear your other conversation.
Diane Rucker 3:16
Yeah, well, I have a quick story I'll share. You can keep it or not as you choose. But the reason I haven't been running lately is because I got scuba certified last year and got a weird injury that took my knee down for about a month or two. And as I was going through some physical therapy to get back to running, I took a hike, walked into a steel reinforcing piece for concrete and ended up getting a decent sized hole in my leg, which then caused a little more therapy and time to heal. So I'm just getting back to the point where I'm fully mobile again. But I feel really good that I've been able to walk all the way through it. And to do you know, seven miles or so each day just to make sure that I'm out there and enjoying the weather.
Tim Bornholdt 4:03
Oh man, I'm glad that you're recovering. Because anytime I've ever hurt myself, it's never been in like a heroic way or a way that makes for a great story. It's like I got my foot caught in a blanket and blew my knee out and had to have surgery on it. It's stuff like that. So I'm just thankful that you're able to get back out and start enjoying some of this weather, and just being active, it is, like you said during the pandemic, so important. And if we can tie it into our podcasts, it's if you're running a business or if you're trying to get anything in front of a computer, it's like do as much as you can away from the computer as well, Get outside and exercise.
Diane Rucker 4:42
Yeah, exactly right. And sometimes even just changing the place where you're working. If you get stuck, our instinct is to dive deep into it, to dig yourself into it and then figure your way out of it. And it's exactly the wrong instinct and sometimes going for a 20 minute walk or turning your computer in the different direction or changing rooms can be enough of a change in your mental attitude to change the way you think about a problem.
Tim Bornholdt 5:08
I couldn't agree more. Well, why don't you tell everybody about who you are and what your role is at University Enterprise Laboratories.
Diane Rucker 5:16
Thanks. I'd love to. So University Enterprise Laboratories is an independent incubator for startups in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. We work primarily with startups that work in biotech, life sciences, healthcare and health security, which has been really critical to us over the last year, and also food and agriculture. But what we're finding as well is that it's less about a single field. For example, biotech really overlaps software, genomics and analytics as well. Food and agriculture is as much about supply chain and blockchain monitoring, as it is about the food and agriculture innovations. So there's an extraordinary amount of overlap between the different types of startups and the cross fields work that we do. And we're not part of the University of Minnesota, we did spin out of the U about 15 or 16 years ago. But we're separate and independent. And we operate as a nonprofit, really, with a mission-related focus to work with startups and growth companies, and to help them succeed or fail quickly.
Tim Bornholdt 6:24
And that's key, like we said, you know, when we were talking earlier, we were talking about knowing when to cut your losses, like if you're out on a marathon, and you get to mile 20, and the water stations are closed down. It's sometimes okay to say, you know, there's going to be another chance. Maybe this isn't the right opportunity. One thing you brought up, it was clear to me after we talked that, you know, UEL is not part of the University of Minnesota. And I know we incorrectly made that assumption, and I'm sure other people get that as well. Do you get that confusion often?
Diane Rucker 7:03
We do. Part of it's our location. So physically, we're located between the east bank campus of U of M and the St. Paul campus of U of M. So we are literally about a mile and a half in either direction from those. The spinning out of the U originally. We came out of college of biological sciences. And the idea was that many of the researchers needed a space to grow their business. So it was created, but they separated it from the U for a very, very good reason. And that's that at the time that UEL was formed in 2005, the intellectual property restrictions that the U were more stringent than they are currently. And intellectual property, at its core, is about protecting the inventor. But the difference is that if we had been part of the University at the time that any intellectual property created at UEL would be owned by the University of Minnesota. And the logic behind separating it and setting it up as an independent incubator is the researchers who develop the technology at UEL own the rights to it. They own the right to start it and commercialize it, and to create a business based on it. So it was really designed with the protection of the entrepreneur in mind.
Tim Bornholdt 8:23
Which is awesome, because in this space, like when it comes to writing code and building digital products, intellectual property is so important. Do you have like, we didn't plan this question, but it kind of makes me wonder, from your perspective, how important are things like patents and copyrights and trademarks? Like do you see a lot of value of those institutions still applicable to the startup community these days?
Diane Rucker 8:52
I would say it really depends on what you're doing. The answer kind of is a general yes, intellectual property, being able to protect your idea. And to control how it's used is a really critical piece. But there's so much change in the way we view intellectual property. And I'll give you two examples. Going back to your comment on code, you can patent or trademark or protect copyright a part of code. But it's very easy to modify that. So you even make slight changes, and you no longer are covered under the copyright. And I think anybody who's done any programming knows that there's many, many ways to do the same thing. So being able to protect that intellectually can be a challenge because there are so many workarounds.
The other odd example is there's personal rights that you have with your name, your image and being aware of those not only in the trademark of your company, in the type of product you do, but in how it could be misinterpreted or used differently. One of the more famous examples was a character in Mortal Kombat, who was based loosely based off of a common celebrity wrestler, whose name I don't remember right now. But it was so close that the celebrity wrestlers sued for defamation of personal image, and I believe won the case, and they had to remove the character from the game. But it could just easily go the opposite direction where they could say, Nope, we just happened to come up with this name and character type. So intellectual property, how you use it, how you present it, what need you have for it depends on what you plan to do with it. And in some cases, you're better off having an idea that's open sourced, that gets a lot of development. And in other cases, you're better off holding on to something if it's defensible, or something you can use to differentiate yourself.
Tim Bornholdt 11:05
Yeah, I see all the time when people come to us. It seems like people are sometimes overly protective of their idea. And, you know, don't want to either share the idea or they want to make sure that they, you know, patent absolutely everything they can. And it seems, like you said, it really comes down to a case by case basis. And it depends on what industry you're in, and, and everything like that. It's hard to give a blanket statement as to whether you need to have a trademark or a patent. I mean, that's why you and I aren't lawyers, right? We leave that up to the other people. And I think for us, maybe you would agree that, for me, I think that the important thing is you got to have the idea and be innovative first. And then once you take that idea, then you can hone it and find those areas of novelty that you can protect with a patent or with a trademark.
Diane Rucker 11:59
Correct. And I also think there's a separate piece of it as well. Sometimes the service that you create is more important than the idea itself. So it's not about the idea. It's about the ability to create value from that idea. And in many cases, it's not the intellectual property of the idea itself. It's the way you reach a customer. It's the connection that you have with your market. And it's the value that you provide to everyone across the supply chain in that market.
Tim Bornholdt 12:30
I love it. That's very well said, You teach a course at the U of M on leadership, professionalism, basic, you know, business ideas for engineers. The human side of software development is something that we talk about a lot on this show. And I think it's because leadership skills and business operations can be harder for tech-minded people to learn than actually writing code. Why do you think it's important for software developers to learn soft skills over maybe the hard skills?
Diane Rucker 12:58
Oh, I love this question. Let me get through it with a little bit of background first. My background is engineering. So I have both a bachelor's and master's degree in materials engineering. And what I found is that you get really deep into any problem that you're solving. And I think that's true, regardless of the type of science or engineering. Your approach is to dive deep into it, to solve the problem, and to cover every possible detail. And where you get into trouble is that nobody ever asks you if you're solving the right problem. So leadership and business basics is kind of a way for me to respond to something I really wished I'd learned as my undergraduate work or even a little bit later. But I truly think the value is being able to step back, being able to see the problem in the context of the other things that are happening around it. So not just the innovation, not just the idea, but the business, the customer, the market, the people the connections, and then being able to put the solving of that problem in the right context. How important is this? Does anybody care if I solve this problem? If I solve this, am I creating three other ones? And so I think especially for scientists and engineers, the teaching, the curriculums that we typically use, don't cover that. And being able to step out of that, and even take a few minutes to re-address the problem is well worthwhile.
Tim Bornholdt 14:35
Yeah, I was talking with somebody the other day about things, in personal life, like how owning a house for example. Like there's no college class about things you need to know when you own a house. Like, you need to know that your furnace is going to die on the absolute coldest day of the year and you're going to be in a pickle and you have to figure out what you're gonna do about it, or even like nothing that catastrophic, but just like, did you know you have to change the filter on your furnace every once in a while. I think it's interesting to me those soft skills, as I'm getting older, you realize how really important they are. But then if I put myself in the context of a college student, somebody who's never been out in the real world and hasn't had to, you know, deploy soft skills, they're always focused on, like, how can I learn development, I need to learn code. In my case, like going to computer engineering school at the U, there was a lot of just people, like listening to my classmates, some kids really took to the academic side of it and wanted to learn that, but it was like, Can you just teach me something that I can use out in the real world? Do you see a lot of disconnect? Cause I feel like the class you're teaching is exactly the right thing that engineers need to learn. But you know, I think, sometimes there's a disconnect of what students think they need to learn versus what, you know, people that are just a few years ahead of them down the road can look back and say, No, this is what you need to learn. How do you square that circle of learning soft skills along with learning some of those hard skills?
Diane Rucker 16:14
Yeah, again, a really great question. It goes back to when you choose a field of study, how do you typically choose it? And it's usually because you really like it. You've exposed to it in the past, and you're interested in it. It maybe relates to something else that you enjoy, maybe it's math and science, maybe it's languages, maybe it's programming skills, or you think it's gonna be a good place for you to get a job in the future. And any of those are completely valid. The soft skills are really hard for universities to teach, for one very simple reason. And that's that as you look at the engineering and science curriculums in particular, they continue to add more so rapidly, that to be able to prepare students to work in those fields, it doesn't feel like you can add anything else. So there's a very, very deep focus on the tools of the trade for electrical engineering or software engineering, but less of a skill of how to use them. And what I think a lot of colleges and a lot of students have relied on in the past has been an internship, or a series of internships or co-ops, to give you those those real world skills, those experience of applying the skills that you learn at university level to the real world jobs, where people need you to do more than just coding. And I think that's one piece of it. But I also think that classes like the one that I teach, which is through TLI, or the Technological Leadership Institute, are kind of a way to bridge those, to understand that you can be technologically strong. But to be able to step back from it and understand where it fits in the context of the business is an equally valuable skill. And most of the students that I get are at the junior or senior level, with occasionally some master students who will take it. But from my perspective, man, I'd love to get people to take this as a freshman or a sophomore. I think it'd be super, as a good perspective, as you're taking the rest of your classes.
Tim Bornholdt 18:25
Yeah, I couldn't agree more. And I think it's interesting, what you said earlier about how those programs are starting to get more and more filled with as technology progresses, we learned more things, obviously. So then those new things become what you have to start to learn. And it seemed like the way that we learn hasn't really evolved a whole lot with all these innovations we've made. And I'll give you some context of that. When we were learning, because I graduated from the U in 2010, so when I was a freshman and sophomore still, I actually didn't graduate with a degree in Computer Engineering. I failed spectacularly out of physics, but I did at least get my minor in it. So I have some of that background still. But they they were teaching things like scheme, and scheme being this like crazy language that I mean, I took a whole semester of it. And I still don't know if I can explain exactly what it did other than more teach you concepts and get you kind of around understanding how computers operate. But I mean, there's been so many advances in things like, you know, it's been proven lectures as a whole are like really hard to transmit information and retain it reliably. Yet that's still kind of the de facto or maybe in the 10 years I've been gone, things have evolved. But do you think that part of the problem could be that instead of cramming on more things to learn that maybe we should let some of the older stuff fall off or change our way of approaching this problem?
Diane Rucker 20:06
I absolutely do. And then I think it, I think you talked about college students having more of a single minded focus before. And I'd actually disagree with that, because I think college students come in after graduating from high school with a really amazing skill set. I mean, they come in with having a multidisciplinary high school approach, with probably having hands on experience with computers, with video games, with iPads, with phones. In fact many cases knowing much more about certain areas than the professors they're about to meet. And I would say, one of the challenges is in translating between the theory of a field and the practical application of it. And that's where I think universities often struggle, because it doesn't feel like you can cut anything from the theory and still get an accredited curriculum program. But at the same time, if you don't translate it to the real world, your experience, Tim, is not unusual. I've heard of more people who have been discouraged from seeking out a field in the STEM, in the sciences, because of maybe a single class where the person convinced themselves they're just not good at physics, or biology is just not my thing. In my case, I spectacularly failed my last two tests in differential equations. I managed to scrape a D in it in my first semester on grades. And it was a really rotten way to start out my grades career at MIT. But so at that point, I'd convinced myself that I wasn't good at math, despite many years of contrary experience in middle school and high school. And I think, because the theory of it was so removed from the practicality of what would I use this for, I just saw myself as maybe I'm in the wrong field, maybe I'm in the wrong place. And one of the challenges with the universities in not only attracting students to STEM, but keeping them in STEM, is being able to bridge that theory and practice, that problem versus business need, and that the soft skills with the hard skills, and actually recognizing that both have value.
Tim Bornholdt 22:31
It's encouraging to hear you say that you had a similar experience at MIT, because it's one of those things where it's, yeah, you go through middle school in high school, and you're in all the advanced math classes, and you think you're doing everything, right, and you're retaining things. But then you get put in front of a situation that's like 100 degrees, or 180 degrees different than what you're used to. And then it's presented in a like, theoretical way, and in a way where it's like, Okay, I know, I'm going to need to know this at some point. But, you know, it seems like you jump in in your college career, and it's like, you're immediately thrown into the theory, as opposed to having like that nice balance of like, Okay, here's a problem. And then you probably won't be able to solve that problem. But let's then go back and talk about some theory. And then once you have that theory, then you can go and apply it to your problem and go on from there. But man, it's like talking to professors about like, the quote, unquote, weeding classes, like that's what got me. It was the intro to physics. And it was a weeding class, like the professor stood at the whiteboard, it was a chalkboard actually. He used to like, take a actual wet cloth and wipe like the entire with a squeegee. He would squeegee the entire chalkboard. And then it was just the whole time it looked like a beautiful mind of him, like writing equations and stuff up there. And it just seemed like it was very performative more than learning. And oh, man, I didn't, I certainly didn't mean to get this podcast on a track of like dragging on university educations, because I certainly took a lot of knowledge out of my university education, but it's just like being in this field and seeing that we have such a need for software engineers, and just across STEM in general, like we have this whole lack of people wanting to get into the field because they see it as this unapproachable thing. And it's because of situations like that, where you've got people who are put up in front of you as gatekeepers, and I feel like it's my job with this podcast, to be like, No, like, go and just pick up a book and try it. Maybe you don't learn best in a university environment, but you are more than welcome to be in this STEM field and help us make software that's actually going to help people.
Diane Rucker 24:44
Yeah, that's exactly right. And it's kind of a balance, because there is absolutely a really strong place for university education. And there's a need for some of the core classes and some of the crazy skills that you get by going deep, but at the same time, I think we undervalue the practical experience side of it. And what you're describing is that you can, you don't have to go through an accredited program to be a software engineer. You need to be willing to try things, to learn yourself, and to test things out. And if it doesn't work to try a different way of doing it. And that's honestly the real approach that universities are trying to teach and sometimes succeeding better than others. But it's that hands on learning. So MIT's approach in theory is, mind and hands. So it's a balance between the theory and the application. And it was originally started as more of a technical college with the idea that you would move out of the ivory tower and into the practical application, the messy stuff that goes with building something, whether that's an app or a software product, or a forage or a foundry or something. And University of Minnesota tries to do much the same thing. But in many cases, there's so much to cover, that it's just really hard to split the balance between how much do you put into the theory and then how much do you translate into the practical nature of it. And I think what we're finding is that the practical nature is at least as valuable, if not more so. And the ability to try something and fail, and try over again, is a skill that I would take 100 times over anything else. It's the grit and determination that's more valuable than the theory.
Tim Bornholdt 26:50
Yeah, that's super well said, because the grit is really what it comes down to, if you want to be, running in this particular case with our audience, if you're trying to build mobile software, like, it's great, but really anything in life, it all comes down to that grit and stick to itiveness. And again, the soft skills that you're teaching.
Diane Rucker 27:09
I used to do interviews for students who were applying to MIT and actually coordinated the western Wisconsin and Minnesota region. But I remember one student that I interviewed, and a question that I would frequently ask is to tell me about something that they'd failed at. And the reason wasn't to go through like a behavioral interview question. It was because I know what it's like to go through a STEM curriculum. I know there's going to be times that you fail. And if you've never failed at something before, the first time that you do is going to be a really horrific learning experience. And I got some really interesting answers. And I found that most of the students kind of use that as a way to almost share a very humbling experience. much like my experience with differential equations. And there's many others of those. I did talk to one student, who looked at me and he said, I don't think I've ever failed at anything. And I just kind of sat back and I thought, you know, I don't think you've ever tried anything that was so hard that you risked failure. And I think that's a really sad position to be in.
Tim Bornholdt 28:22
I agree. And I think though, one thing with that is like, it's also kind of perspective because, maybe I'm reading this wrong, but perhaps in never failing at something maybe instead you have a perspective of, even if you face adversity, and the original task that you set out to achieve didn't go as planned, perhaps you made a connection, or you perhaps you learned a skill or something that was directly applicable to the next challenge that you face. And so in that regard, you can still say that you're batting 1000. Because you failed in one respect, but by changing your perspective, or framing it in a different way, perhaps you, you know, succeeded.
Diane Rucker 29:07
Yeah, exactly right. I have two comments on that. The first is that I went back to school about seven years ago to do an executive MBA program through MIT Sloan. And theoretically, it should have been a year before that. But I spectacularly failed my interview with them. So I made it past the first gate. I got through the application. I got invited to Boston to do an interview. And the question that I was asked that just flummoxed me was, Tell us about your experience as an entrepreneur. How do you see yourself that way? And it just threw me and I said, Well, I'm not an entrepreneur. I've only worked in big companies. And I don't have any entrepreneurial experience. And it wasn't quite as cut and dried, but they basically said, Thank you. Thanks for coming. We'll let you know. But what I failed to realize in getting that question is that we treat entrepreneurship, we treat innovation, as being about having that brilliant idea, starting a business. But when you redefine entrepreneurship and innovation as having a passion for change, and being willing to take that passion and do something about it, it opens it up so very much. And then you start looking at what you're willing to put the time in to change. And suddenly, a lot more people start to see themselves as entrepreneurs when you redefine it that way. So after having spectacularly failed that interview, I had the, Do I do this again? Do I reapply? Or were they right? Am I done? And I was like, No, dammit, they were wrong. I'm going back again.
And so I did. And I think that my grit and determination of applying again, getting back out there for another interview, and then confronting the 800 pound gorilla in the room and saying, Why didn't I get accepted last time?, was enough to get me accepted the next time around, because I'd made some changes. And I'd really changed the way I saw myself more than anything else.
Tim Bornholdt 31:20
That's beautiful. I really love that story. Because a lot of times people get those instances where you're put up against adversity, and, you know, it's fight or flight. And I think a lot of times, recently, like just in my own entrepreneurial journey lately, I've been feeling a lot of flight, if I'm being honest. But framing it in that way of having entrepreneurship being about having a passion for change, it really does in life, a lot of times, comes down to how you frame and see a problem. And it's just such a great way of looking at it. So I really appreciate you sharing that because I think that might be enough of a spark in some people to be like, Oh, yeah, if you put it that way, then I'm an entrepreneur. Not everybody is going to have an entrepreneurial journey like Mark Zuckerberg, or like, you know, Sergey Brin, or anybody like that. Everyone can make change in their own way and move towards how they see the world needing to shape up, just doing it on their own terms.
Diane Rucker 32:29
Exactly right. And I think we focus too much, even at the university level, or at the startup level, What are you good at? And the answer isn't, it's not even to ask that question. We put too much focus on being instinctively good at something. And if you're not good at that, you just don't do it. Much like my experience in diff EQ and yours in physics, if we had stopped at that point, we would have lost something really substantial. And it's more about, What am I willing to try and maybe fail at, and maybe find a different way to do, less about being gifted or skilled in an area and more about willing to put the time into it. One of my favorite books, and one that I tried to bring in to my class a little bit is a book called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. And what I like about it is it talks about not just an innate skill in computers, or hockey, or, whatever it is, but an ability to put the time in, to spend the time to really dive into something and get better. And then again, a willingness to step back from it and figure out if it's the right thing that you're working on.
Tim Bornholdt 33:47
That's such a great point to touch on, too, is knowing when it's the time to, you know, I often use this metaphor with my business partner where it feels like sometimes we're the motors of a boat, and like just us kicking down, like sometimes when you're swimming, you have to put your head down in the water and just kick, kick, kick, kick, and then there's times when you have to look up and look around you to see, Am I still moving in the right direction and I still pushing this boat in the right way? And I think that it's such an important skill to have, like you can't just be underwater the whole time kicking or else you're gonna end up, you know, in a place that you don't want to be, but then conversely, you can't just always be kind of like, Well, you know, someday I'll move to the shore. I still have to put the work in and get it done. And with Malcolm Gladwell's book, it's like being intentional about how you go about doing that and doing things in a way that's going to be productive to getting you towards that goal is super important.
Diane Rucker 34:47
And I'll add one more thing as well, which is knowing what you're not good at no matter how much time you put into it and then finding somebody else who is. And that's really seeking out someone who has a strength in a completely different area than you want to, or choose to, and getting that person or people who will not agree with you, and challenge the questions that you have.
Tim Bornholdt 35:11
Yeah, this is such a great conversation because it feels more like a personal therapy session of my own life experiences. But I think so many people would agree with that. And, maybe I'll ask you this question, then like, Do you think, when you're going out and you deal with a lot of startups, and obviously like a lot of entrepreneurs, do you think it's, do you see a lot more success with people that have that right fit of co founders, as opposed to people that maybe go out and try to strike out and do it by themselves?
Diane Rucker 35:41
I think it's really hard to do it by yourself. No matter what we're good at, however we're willing to learn, it really helps to be able to bounce ideas off of someone else. So I think even if someone decides to go it alone, having some advisors, informal or formal, that can serve as sounding points for what they're doing is absolutely critical. Entrepreneurship, having that passion for change, you have to have that slightly crazy passion to do something. But you also have to have a reality check once in a while, and you're gonna get stuck. And your friends or your advisors or your teammates are the people that will help you get unstuck. And that's where I see a huge challenge for entrepreneurs. It's not about the idea. It's about what you do with it. It's not about the technology. It's about who needs the technology, or how to apply it. So it's about getting the idea but getting unstuck in the right direction.
Tim Bornholdt 36:47
Yeah, and like you said before, finding the right mentors for you, and the right partners that will strike that balance. And it really starts with having a deep look at yourself, and having an uncomfortable conversation with yourself sometimes about what your, you know, insecurities or deficiencies are and then, you know, having the courage to actually do something about it and expose those vulnerabilities to other people and say, you know, I'm really not good at x or, you know, you are really good at that, would you want to partner up. And finding someone that would align on your vision for change, it's so critical. There's no way that I'd be able to do what I do at JMG if I didn't have my business partner, because we are like as polar opposites as can be in many ways, but our shared vision of how we can see, you know, building mobile software, that is in lockstep. And I think as long as you have that Northstar together as a group, then that's really what is going to ultimately affect change and finding a way to hang on each other's insecurities and bolster each other when you need that, it's so necessary.
Diane Rucker 38:04
Yeah, you gotta have something that inspires you, that gets you to keep going. But you know, along the way, it's gonna be a journey, you're not always going to agree. And that's a good thing. I mean, I actually look actively for people who are going to disagree with me, so that it gives me a different perspective. But it's really hard to seek that out. Kind of like what you said, you have to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, with not only not being the smartest person in the room, but actively trying to find people who look at things differently than you do, and sometimes better.
Tim Bornholdt 38:36
Right, and getting that like that validation, like the change that you're striving for, you know, making sure that you're actually moving towards something that people actually want and that the way you're doing it is in a way that people would, you know, agree with or want to get behind. It's hard to strike that balance sometimes. But I want to move to a different topic that I thought I really want to hear your thoughts around since you're obviously work with a lot of startups at UEL. And I know that you volunteer on the board of organizations that helps startups gain traction. So talking about the Twin Cities startup scene in general, how do you see, where are we at right now in the state of that? And where do you think maybe we could use some improvements?
Diane Rucker 39:22
Again, awesome question. I'll answer that from two perspectives, which is me kind of coming back from MIT and Boston seven years ago and going, There's so much here. How do we make it better? And then me looking around now, the perspective of what's happened. Things that have happened in the last six to seven years include accelerator programs in Minnesota that work with companies at all levels, early stage to growth, the formation of Launch Minnesota, which is an extraordinary statewide organization using a hub model that actually works with different regions to be able to bring entrepreneurs from Greater Minnesota in connection with other parts of Minnesota. An ecosystem is really about three main things, or sorry, five main things. It's the entrepreneurs, the risk takers, it's the corporations who are willing to either help or hinder them, it's the government organizations like Launch Minnesota that can promote or make it easier to start a business., it's finding funding and risk capital to be able to get what you need when you need it, and it's about learning what you don't know, the education, the university systems, the cross organizations, entrepreneur support organizations like across the state. Where we were six or seven years ago is that bits and pieces of those existed, but the connections across the ecosystem weren't there. And where we are now is just an extraordinary blossoming, I guess, of the region. We have some incredible clusters in Minnesota. We have the knowledge of retail with Best Buy and Target. We have food and agriculture with groups like Cargill, Ecolab, many others. We have a knowledge of clean water technology. We work with biotech and med tech startups. We have the most incredible medical device cluster. And groups like medical alley working to keep that going. We have software and knowledge businesses that are growing in related and adjacent industries, really leveraging off of retail logistics, digital health, insurance. And what that creates is essentially an ecosystem where people move around between clusters. People create connections between types of parts of the ecosystem. And the strength of the Minnesota and Twin Cities and really Greater Minnesota ecosystem as well isn't the strength of the individual parts. It's the strength of those connections. And in the last, I'd say two to four years, those connections have just taken off. And I see that continuing to grow. It's amazing. And it's so cool to be part of it.
Tim Bornholdt 42:14
Yeah, I would say, we've been in business for nine years. And when we got started, there were certainly some organizations and you could see the kind of underpinnings of the startup scene growing here. But as we've been going, maybe it's just because we're getting more and more connected. But I think it's, like you said, it's more other people are connecting, and those nodes are crossing into other areas. And it's a super exciting time to be a entrepreneur in Minnesota. Because there's just so much opportunity. And I think we're fortunate that, I think like you said, with your second point of corporate overlords, they can either be benevolent or not so much. And in this region, you know, there's obviously, you know, corporations have their own interests, but I think for the most part, they've been nothing but supportive. You see like Target and Best Buy constantly supporting different startup events and conferences, and I mean, Cargill too and 3M and all the other huge organizations that are located here, and you'd think, you know, why Minneapolis, of all places, but it just kind of speaks to, I think, this collective drive that we as Minnesotans have presented of, you know, if you describe entrepreneurship as wanting to have a passion for change, I think there's a lot of people that I've met here in Minnesota that have a lot of passion and want to see things change. And it's really been fun to watch all of these people work together to foster some of that change, and to try to be inclusive to help people get into the scene as well. So it's not just building up another, you know, old boys club and not letting other people in which, sometimes we as Minnesotans might do socially.
Diane Rucker 44:03
Yeah, I would agree with that. The corporations in Minnesota, kind of big business, as well as small business, have been extraordinarily supportive of the growth and innovation in entrepreneurship. And that's been amazing to see. I will contrast that with two of the more famous examples. One is Route 198 in Boston, and one is Silicon Valley, both of which were really, really strong centers of technology. One of the key differences from between Silicon Valley and Route 128 was a set of non compete agreements that were, a number of the very traditionally minded businesses in Boston, back in the 60s and 70s and a little earlier, would create non compete agreements to keep their workers from moving around the cluster, from moving from one business to the other. In contrast, Silicon Valley largely didn't have those and one of the reasons that, even though the two regions started out with similar strengths that they grew in different ways, was because in Silicon Valley, there was more flexibility to move around. So back to the point that corporations can either help or hinder. I think those are the two extreme examples. I think what we're seeing in Minnesota is very much on the helping side, on the supporting, on the wanting to be more inclusive about drawing entrepreneurs of color in, about seeking out women entrepreneurs, and about making sure that big business support small business and vice versa.
Tim Bornholdt 45:37
That's such a great point of, you know, having these large companies with their bases here in the Twin Cities. It attracts talent from around the world to want to come here. And I think it's been a big push of ours, but I think of a lot of people in Minnesota, to be more inclusive and to have different voices, different people with different colored skin and different genders and all of that, it's like, the more diversity that you can have and coming from the bigger companies that can afford to attract people away from the valleys or the coasts, and get them to come here. Then they do some work and get attached to the startup scene and then turn around and start up their own startups and the cycle just keeps going. So I think it's a really astute observation that you need to have. It's not just one part of the five that you provided of what makes a healthy ecosystem. It really is a nice balance of all the parts working together to really, you know, have the the rising tide lifts all boats.
Diane Rucker 46:38
Exactly. And I'll add another comment as well. We talked about UEL forming initially out of the University of Minnesota, but separating because of the intellectual property restrictions. And I would say the University of Minnesota is another of those groups that's made extraordinary strides, not only in understanding the value of intellectual property, but being willing to open their doors to people around the state. They've created some just phenomenal classes, some modules, that are available across the state, to people who are interested in learning more about entrepreneurship. And it's a matter of opening the doors. So it's not exclusive to the U, to the students, the alumni. It's an incredible resource for the State of Minnesota. And that's another thing that I think is much different than what we would have seen even 10, 15, 20 years ago. And it's just an incredible asset for our state.
Tim Bornholdt 47:34
Yeah, I couldn't agree more. It's been really fun to watch, just the so many, like companies come out of the startup scene and start to grow and blossom and become you know, even bigger. Just even the other day like Sezzle being listed on, getting an IPO in Australia and having some of that like hometown pride.
Diane Rucker 47:56
It's so cool.
Tim Bornholdt 47:57
It is. And it's interesting to see, like, if you have a pocket of people that are dedicated to, you know, expanding out your own region, just the amount of growth that you can see, just from a couple of good examples popping out of these regions. It's really fun to be a part of. It must be like so rewarding from your position to help play a role in helping shape this ecosystem that we've got going on here.
Diane Rucker 48:27
Oh, it's super cool. I don't know that I would describe myself as a shaper. I would say a good way of describing it is one of my old professors from MIT described it as translating interest into impact. Interest in the ecosystem has always been there. Having impact on it, or seeing an impact as a result of what you do, I'm seeing more of that now. But it's much more about me individually and more about the groups, the collections, the members who are so critical as part of this ecosystem. And I love the fact that it's not a single person. It's not a Steve Jobs. It's not an Elan Musk. It's a really committed group of people who love this state and want to see it continue to grow.
Tim Bornholdt 49:14
It's so true, like it's instead of having one mega superstar like that, that's kind of shaping things, we really do have like, you pick out any industry or any kind of orbiting support industry like sales or marketing or anything like that. And there's just so many brilliant people that are helping to shape the industry and to shape the environment around here. And so I'm glad you said that, that it really does take a team. It's really not just the one person.
Diane Rucker 49:44
We tend to be a nation in America of heroes and villains. We tend to seek out the heroes to admire them, to bring them up. And we equally enthusiastically seek out the villains to vilify them, to talk about them. And that's not the right approach because no single person can have that great of an effect. When you put a group together, especially a group with different experiences, different incoming biases, different ways of looking at a problem, it's so much better.
Tim Bornholdt 50:19
I could not agree more. Last question before I give you back your day and your weekend. So being that you're involved with a lot of startups, I would assume that you've started to pick up on some patterns. So giving some tangible advice to our audience here of potential and maybe current app developers and product owners, are there any common mistakes that you see startups make when it comes to building out their tech stack?
Diane Rucker 50:46
Yeah, so I would say the most common is assuming that you are the customer and building something that's exactly what you want, as opposed to going out and talking with people who you believe have this problem. In a lot of cases, I think it's just tech in general, we tend to jump in and assume we have the solution. When in reality, what you're trying to find out from your potential customers is, Do they have the problem? And is it important enough to solve? So first and foremost, talk to people. It's really hard to do. But if you're not comfortable doing it, or if the rest of your team isn't, find somebody who is and start asking questions. Don't develop until you figure out whether the problem you're solving is the one that people want solved.
The other challenge I think, that startups often have is that they start out with the idea that I have to go raise money, and then I can do what I want to do. And sometimes raising money can actually be a barrier. And I know it sounds strange. Almost every startup that's listening to this is thinking, Is she crazy? But the thing about bootstrapping it or waiting a little bit to make sure you're solving the right problem is it forces you to limit what you do, to choose carefully on what you're solving or how you're solving it. And in contrast, let's say you go out, and somebody likes your idea, and they give you $3 million. Awesome. You can do anything. You don't have to split your time, you don't have to, you don't have to pick one of these five things to focus on, you can do all of them. And sometimes that's the right choice. But more often than not, it splits your focus at a time when you need to figure out what you and your team are really good at and what you really want to be doing.
Tim Bornholdt 52:50
There was something you said earlier, too about with what you do at UEL and how there's been a lot of startups, there's a lot of like cross disciplines that you get when you're starting up a product. And I think it's really interesting, because there's, in my mind, when you're talking about building an MVP, a minimally viable product, just in case you aren't aware, I think that there's an interesting, you need to be able to see across industries sometimes. And you need to be able to draw parallels across different sectors. But then when you come up with your solution, I think sometimes I fall into this trap all the time of over explaining, much like I'm doing during this comment right now. But, I think it's one thing that I see startups doing a lot is you try to shove as much as you can into your minimally viable product, or you get so attached and tunnel focused into your thing where you say, Well, I can't release unless I have these 20 features. But again, at the end of the day, are your customers actually asking for those 20 features? Or are they just asking for one feature?
Diane Rucker 53:59
Yeah. And it's a really, really hard balance to follow. Because you get excited about something. You've put time and effort and energy into building it. And you don't want to give it up. Even if you're hearing back that nobody really wants it, you're like, But it's really cool. If I could just build it, I could show them. And sometimes it just takes stepping back and saying Okay, let's go back to the basics. What really is the problem that we're trying to solve? And how can we do that in the simplest and easiest way, not for us, but for our customer? And it's a really hard step to follow. It's really hard to take that step back. And I know how hard it is to give up something that you absolutely love, but really doesn't need to be there. It can always be added as a future feature.
Tim Bornholdt 54:55
Well, it's the curse of like you said, if entrepreneurship is about passion, passion for change that passion, you get the passion and you see like the one thing where you're like, Yes, if I change this, it's great. And then once you realize that you can make those changes, then it becomes a different problem of well, Should you make these changes?
Diane Rucker 55:17
Right. That's exactly why I think fundraising too early can be a problem.
Tim Bornholdt 55:21
Yeah. Yeah, I agree. I think that's one of the weirdest things about being in the startup space is, I've never personally gone out and fundraised. Like the the companies I've started have all been bootstrapped, or other people have done the fundraising. And I've just focused on the tech. But I just think there is a need for some capital, when you start a business. And not everyone has the means to start a company, you know, that's as low overhead as what we do with app development. But it's like, it's just so hard to see people go into it with, again, looking at some of those models that you get out of Silicon Valley of, you know, well, these companies raised all this VC money, hundreds and millions of dollars of VC money. And so that means that's what I got to do. And again, it's maybe that's the right path for you. But maybe it's not.
Diane Rucker 56:18
Yeah, I'll make another couple quick comments, just to kind of close it out. In general, the two year and five year survival rates for businesses in Minnesota are stronger than anywhere else in the country, which means kind of two things. First, we have a different breed of entrepreneurs here. We have people who're typically a little bit older, who typically wait a little bit longer before starting their business or are coming up with their big idea. But they put time, energy, research, and work into it. And that pays off because they've done the early work to make sure that that business is going to be successful, or that they understand enough and at the right time to be able to pivot it. So recognizing those two things, the really high survival rates of businesses in Minnesota and the slightly older age of entrepreneurs, changes a little bit the approach that we can do on fundraising. It may take a little longer to reach that unicorn status. It may take longer to reach that fundraising milestone. But when you do, you're really well positioned for success.
Tim Bornholdt 57:26
That's such a great way to end it. Yeah, I could not agree more. Diane, this was so much fun. I'm really glad we had the chance to connect today. How can people get in touch with you if they want to learn more about you and what you do at University Enterprise Laboratories?
Diane Rucker 57:40
Awesome. Well, they are more than welcome to reach out to me at my email address, which is Diane@uelmn.org. Probably the easiest way to find me is on social media, either on LinkedIn or on Twitter. And my Twitter handle is perky_R.
Tim Bornholdt 57:59
I love it. What's the story behind that?
Diane Rucker 58:02
Oh, there's a great story. It's twofold. First, when I was at MIT the first time, doing my undergraduate work, they had a big Athena system, which was a massive computer system. Pretty awesome for MIT at the time, because the campus wide set of clusters. And you had to set up a username and the traditional one that was suggested was just first initial last name. I was like, that's kind of boring. So I tried a couple of other ones. And they were all taken. And I was like, how about perky, and perky was available. So I became email@example.com. And when I went back for my executive MBA program at Sloan in 2012, I had to choose an email address. And I sat down in front of my computer about 20 years later, 25 years later almost and said, Okay, is this still who I am? I'm going back for an executive MBA program. Do I need to be more more serious, more professional? And I was like, No, dammit, if I'm going to be an executive, I'm going to be a perky executive.
Tim Bornholdt 59:10
Diane Rucker 59:10
So I started it over again. So I guess in terms of permanent connections, I can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tim Bornholdt 59:22
That is so cool. It's so nice to talk with somebody that has that kind of outlook on running business and making it, because business is serious, but it doesn't always have to be serious. And it's like, what's the point of starting off and taking on all the stress and anxiety that comes with running your own business if you can't also enjoy the parts that are meant to be enjoyed.
Diane Rucker 59:45
You got to have fun with it. Absolutely.
Tim Bornholdt 59:48
I love it. Diane, thank you so much.
Diane Rucker 59:50
Thank you, Tim. It's been a pleasure. I've really enjoyed it.
Tim Bornholdt 59:54
Thanks to Diane Rucker for joining me on the podcast today. You can learn more about University Enterprise Laboratories at uelmn.org.
Show notes for this episode can be found at constantvariables.co. You can get in touch with us by emailing Hello@constant variables.co. I'm @TimBornholdt on Twitter and the show is @CV_podcast. Today's episode was produced by Jenny Karkowski and edited by the zappity Jordan Daoust.
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